On Feb 19, 2000, slashdot ran the results of an interview with Al
Gore's webmaster. I'd asked the last question of the 10 answered. I
basically blasted www.algore2000.com for being a large fluff piece, providing
nothing more than soundbytes and catch phrases, and asked why the site appears
to take its viewers for fools. The webmaster was quite obviously unprepared
to answer that question, and the hundreds of comments on that interview, along
with a letter from Mr. Scott Reents, of The Democracy Project asking to
quote me in a
paper he was authoring convinced me that the 2000 online campaign should
have been run much, much differently.
The Internet was used in the 1996 election. If I recall correctly, Bob Dole
and Bill Clinton both had campaign websites. They were tastefully done, and
presented information about upcoming campaign stump locations, transcripts of
speeches, press releases, information about registering to vote, etc. For the
time, they were quite satisfactory.
The problem is, this was also the extent of Internet use by the candidates for
the 2000 campaign. Sure, Al Gore made sure to flash "www.algore2000.com" on
his ads. Sure, George W. Bush mentioned his web site periodically in his
speeches. Both candidates used their web sites to further distribute the
soundbytes they provided in their television advertisements. Both candidates
used their web sites to provide copies of the same press releases given to
newspapers. The same promises made in stump speeches. The same slogans found
on bumper stickers.
Neither candidate used the Internet to provide more detail about their
proposals, more information on their past performance in office, more evidence
to support their claims or more contact with the candidate himself. The
online campaign of 2000 was an utter failure compared to what it could -- and
should -- have been.
Television and radio provide candidates with a way to push a time-limited
message to a small segment of the population: viewers or listeners who happen
to be using the chosen station at the chosen time on the chosen day in the
chosen area. Candidates can say a few words, show a few pictures (in the case
of television), and use a catchy slogan -- and if they do it often enough, it's
possible that their name will be the one that jumps to mind when the voter
enters the voting booth. These ads are severely limited by time and their
high price, so their message must be extremely brief.
Print media (newspapers, magazines, fliers, billboards, direct mailings, etc)
allow candidates to provide more detailed information, more pictures, and
possibly some numbers regarding their proposals. They also have their
limitations -- number of words, number of pages, potential distribution and the
fact that many people won't take a significant amount of time read an overly
The Internet faces none of the constraints of TV, radio or print advertising.
A candidate could make his entire life's story available, along with more
information on his past performance and future ideas than a whole team of
political analysts could possibly wade through during the length of the
campaign. A candidate could provide one 'catch-all' page that would let Joe
Voter see where he stands on the important issues in less time that it would
take Joe to listen to a 30 second TV commercial. Candidates thus far have
done neither of these.
The golden rule of designing a web site -- or running a campaign -- is to keep
your intended audience in mind at all times. The 2000 candidates' web sites
(www.georgewbush.com and www.algore2000.com) don't appear to have
been designed with their audience in mind. The audience for the candidate web
sites was much more broad than the designers anticipated. There were senior
citizens, teens, blacks, whites, singles, couples, rich, poor, and every
combination of these -- all looking for varying levels of information about the
candidate. Many of these folks were disappointed by what they found, or more
likely, didn't find.
There were site visitors like me, who wanted to access specifics -- copies of
proposals, past voting records, debate transcripts, and comments from various
experts regarding the candidate's proposals, to name a few things -- the sites
didn't provide this information. I came away from both sites heavily
disappointed that all I could find was "Al Gore supports technology
innovation", and not anything regarding his support or non-support of the
DMCA, CDA, and other previous tech-related bills. There were site viewers like
my younger brother, who just turned 18 and has very little interest
in politics. He just wanted to see what Bush and Gore had to say about college
tuition breaks. He came away disappointed at having found only that Gore and Bush "supported
education" without saying whether or not they would make federal student grant money more or
less selective. There were site
visitors like the ones I saw in Virginia Tech's library who were just trying
to get a feel for the candidate's general personality, who came away
disappointed in finding nothing more than the standard press release
biographical information on the candidates.
While ads in other media can be taylored to a specific audience, the
audience for the candidate web sites was too broad to allow this. Some people
wanted details, some wanted an overview, and everyone was concerned with a
different issue. Instead of attempting to address all these variations in
their audience, the candidate web site designers decided to design their site
with a "general" audience in mind -- Joe American. This was their first mistake. From what I can
gather off the sites (you'll have to turn to see; they figured Joe to be of average income, intelligence,
and with average interest in politics. This is understandable. What they forgot, however, is that Joe
American could get all the information he wanted by reading the newspaper, or watching the
evening news. Joe American is the audience the tv and print folks worked to target. What the candidate web sites should have done was enhance the campaign being run on television and in print.
Joe American was taken care of by the more mainstream media. The folks who should have been
targetted by the online campaign are the ones that slip through the cracks of the mainstream
campaign: those who don't watch much TV, those who don't subscribe to a newspaper, those who
want more detailed information about a candidate or an issue. Neither candidate's campaign in 2000 did this
well, and who learns to do it well the fastest could quite possibly may become the deciding factor in the 2004 presidential election.
The obvious question becomes: "what would it take to run an online campaign well?" In a nutshell,
one would have to plan early, and quite likely have to be prepared to spend big. To elaborate, I
think there are three key things any successful online campaign should do. Each one assumes a standard mainstream media campaign also being run before the election. If the three are done well, I believe that the campaign would reach many more voters than any we've seen so far.
- Provide details about a candidate's past voting record
To provide details about a candidate's past legislative votes and his rationale, the potential
candidate should start recording the information now. It could be quite simple -- he casts a vote,
then spend 15 minutes with a secretary dictating his reasons for voting the way he did. Have the
secretary enter the information into a database, along with the text of the bill. Have a web site
dedicated to allowing users to access this information, by searching on vote date, bill text, the candidate's comments, and anything else that could possibly be relevant. When election time rolls around, the candidate can say "go to my web site, see how I've voted on bills concerning this idea and why I voted that way" rather than "go to my web site, and see that I've said that I support this idea." Of course, this candidate would have to have nothing to hide in their past votes and would have to have a team of engineers to keep the system running smoothly.
- Provide more insight into the candidate as a person
To provide more insight into the candidate as a person, the candidate should start keeping some
form of online journal now. A brief entry every few days regarding his concerns ("I'm not sure
how to vote on Bill X next week..."), comments ("I hope the folks back home know that Bill Y is really
important to their future") and general information ("Gee, I really think the traffic in DC is awful")
would be sufficient. The goal would be to have the candidate be able to point to past journal entries and say "look how far-seeing I am; I anticipated this problem," or "I share your concerns -- see?" The public could read whatever interested them, and get a much better feel for the candidate if this is done properly. Again, this candidate would have to have nothing to hide, and employ a good technical staff and most likely a few writers.
- Allow and encourage
public discussion with the candidate
Most importantly, there would have to be some way to allow public discussion/debate on the
candidate's web site. If this is done well, the candidate would be able to write a bit about an idea,
read responses from potential voters and carry on a dialog with them. Something like the K5
moderation system would probably be good here -- allow the community to decide what concerns
they would like addressed most, and have the candidate start with those. To implement this would
take a top notch technical staff, as well as a very very well spoken candidate.
In summary, a successful online campaign would have to be run by a very open candidate with a
flair for the written word and a technical staff with amazing skill. It's certainly not an easy task to
find either of these, but if they can ever come together, we could for the first time see what a truly
successful online campaign can be.